Following the release of General McChrystal’s report on the state of the war in Afghanistan, debates have broken out about the best path forward for the U.S. in a country that has not been kind to foreign powers. The struggle within the administration over the proper path forward has been well documented, with Vice President Biden seeking to draw down U.S. force levels while Secretary of State Clinton and others have pushed for a more significant commitment. President Obama, who made success in Afghanistan a cornerstone of his foreign policy as a presidential candidate, now appears less sure about increased troop commitments. At the center of this debate are two interrelated questions: can the U.S. achieve success in Afghanistan and if so, at what cost is it willing to do so?
The image of what a successful outcome in Afghanistan looks like is far from clear, and the notion that Iraq is viewed as a positive model is not particularly encouraging. But even relatively minimalist expectations for stability in Afghanistan are undercut by the large number of hurdles facing Karzai’s regime (poverty, lack of education, well-organized rebels, an unstable neighbor, mountainous terrain, etc.). In Sunday’s New York Times, David Brooks, while acknowledging choosing the right path in Afghanistan is tricky, argues “American forces have become quite good at counterinsurgency. They have a battle-tested strategy, experienced troops and a superb new leadership team.” He then goes on to approvingly site work by international relations scholars that finds counterinsurgency campaigns centered on “hearts and minds” strategies succeed 70% of the time. These numbers should give us confidence in a successful outcome, right?
Not surprisingly, as in much social science research, one must read the fine print (or at least look at all the tables). As Alex Downes points out, perhaps the more important finding for the U.S. in Afghanistan is the fact that no country that switched to fighting a “hearts and minds” campaign after eight years (the length of time the U.S. has been in Afghanistan) has ever defeated an insurgency. Of course, this does not mean that the United States is destined to fail in Afghanistan, but it does show that we need to be realistic about the odds of success, the length of time involved, and the costs.
It would be nice if we could bring findings from international relations to bear on the Afghan conflict, but the Enterline and Magagnoli dataset Brooks favorably cites contains only 66 conflicts (33 since 1946) and a significant number of these are anti-colonial wars of independence. The relatively small number of cases combined with the heterogeneity of the conflicts makes extrapolating useful information difficult. Perhaps most noteworthy is that the authors find the mean duration of a conflict after switching to a "hearts and minds" strategy is over eight years. A recent New York Times poll found that only 44% of respondents were only willing to remain in Afghanistan for more than two years.
Over the coming weeks, policymakers, commentators, and even a few academics will debate the future role of the United States in Afghanistan. While this debate will focus on the costs and benefits of an increased or a decreased commitment by the U.S. to the war, it is likely to be an elaborate sideshow. Overshadowed by this debate are two well established facts in international relations: state building is costly and time consuming and support for wars declines over time. Neither of these findings bodes well for the Obama administration putting more troops and resources into Afghanistan. At the end of the day, President Obama will have to weigh the very risky proposition that increasing troop levels will improve the situation in Afghanistan against the more predicable results for a decreased commitment. Setting the stage for an exit in Afghanistan will lead President Obama’s hawkish critics to jump all over him, but such problems are predicable and manageable. That option may be more appealing than the highly unpredictable and high stakes decision to increase troop levels.